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The Work of Art in the Age of Digital Production: An Antiapology for Ebert, Moriarty et al.

Exploring the historical roots of the hyped animosities between Art and Mass Media from Benjamin to McLuhan and back.

Portrait of Walter Benjamin

    Historical roots of the debate

      Going over some Arguments from the fresh inflamed debate whether Games are entitled to the Label “Art” (with a capital A), I´m wondering where the roots of this discussion first surfaced in the historical context.

      If Marshall McLuhan can be considered as Father of modern Media Theory, Walter Benjamin could be labeled as its Granddad. His 1936 published Essay “Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit” is considered by many as one of the most influential works dealing with the Art Theory behind Mass Media.

      The core concepts of Benjamins Understanding of Art are well represented with the terms “Authenticity” and artistical “Aura”. In Benjamins own words:

      Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be […] The whole sphere of authenticity is outside the technical.

      [Die Aura ist ein] „sonderbares Gespinst aus Raum und Zeit: einmalige Erscheinung einer Ferne, so nah sie sein mag…Die Zertrümmerung der Aura ist die Signatur einer Wahrnehmung, deren Sinn für alles Gleichartige auf der Welt so gewachsen ist, daß sie es mittels der Reproduktion auch dem Einmaligen abgewinnt.

      ([The Aura is a] strange web, made from time and space: unique apparition of a remoteness that can`t be close enough…The demolition of the Aura is the signature of a perception, which has grown a sense for similarities to such degree, that she also reclaims the Uniqueness by means of Reproduction.

      While Benjamin never tries to make a case whether Movies and Photography could be considered as “True Art” in the context of Aesthetics (because of their dependence on modern technology and reproducibility) his decision to not play the high-low Art card can be explained with his political background (He was a convinced Marxist). He was certainly well aware that the new mass media where looked upon by his colleagues.



        The Short version of the “artistic” definition of “Art”

          To sum up this understanding of what is considered “True Art” by the overwhelming majority of Art critics and theorists of the last 500 years:

          1. A work of Art must be original (have an historical identifiable material and auctorial source)
          2. A work of Art must have some secret ingredient that is hard to describe but is often labeled as “Soul, Aura, Genius, Originality” etc. ad.inf.
          3. The higher the concentration of this secret ingredient the greater the status of the work of art

          Following this definition Ebert can hardly be contradicted: Video Games can never be considered Art in this sense because speaking of an original doesn`t make sense if you are working in a “collaborative digital work environment”. A Videogame can also have no “secret ingredient”. For a videogame to function properly it is absolutely necessary that every line of code, every artistic asset works together perfectly in a tight and controlled fashion. If there was a “secret ingredient” a gamemaker would have to see to it that it is debugged. Otherwise the whole work would fall apart.

          I call this definition “artistic” to distinguish it from a scientific definition (like the ones hard sciences use to define a contstant in Math or Physics). Because if we would apply scientific strictness to it, it couldn`t withstand a closer examination. The first part (material/auctorial originality) is based on a Conservation Law that was popular during the last five centuries but was discarded at the latest by Quantum Theory in the early 20th Century. There is no such thing as a “objective, conservative” Mona Lisa. The Canvas Leonardo painted his Mona Lisa on is not the same that we see today in the Louvre. It is a construct and the particles Leonardo “originally” used to create this painting might be floating around Pluto at the moment. Heraklit was closer to the scientific truth (πάντα á¿¥εá¿–).

          That doesn't mean this definition can not be of some value for this debate. We shouldn't make the mistake to judge definitions by their “Density” (where philosophical, artistical, historical definition would be on the soft end of the spectrum and a definition of PI on the hard end). It`s an inherent temptation to label everything with degrading/praising  attributes and I believe this “judgement” of some media as being “structural” inferior to others is on the same level as defending its own believe/religion against others. It originates of the Fallacy to assume that what is “good” for myself has to be “good” per se (for everybody).

          I understand that critics make a living by labeling everything with high/low stars and stripes, with “Kitsch” or “Masterpiece”, but saying something like “Music” is a structural “superior” Artform compared to “Literature” is nonsense or Polemics, and as much as I love Schopenhauer, he has to be called out for that. It`s like saying: English is structural superior to French. It’s a statement that is on the same level as the old joke about the definition of heaven and hell:

          var professions:Array = [police, cooks, engineers];

          var heaven:Boolean;

          var hell:Boolean;

          if(professions[0]==”british” && professions[1]==”french”&&professions[2]==”german”){

                          heaven = true;

                        hell != heaven


          else if(professions[0]==”german” && professions[1]==”british”&&professions[2]==”french”){

                          hell = true;

                        heaven != hell;



          The 3 Insults to Gamekind

          Critics have to make bold statements to enhance their signal/noise ratio in the Informationflood, and the overreaction of the game Industry and gamers understandably were not helping to clear the issue. Attempts like these are desperate and ill conceived, they only further strengthen the prejudice the public might have about Video Games, that see them as an “immature” mass media trash incapable of contributing to society in a constructive way.

          In Analogy to Freud we could identify the Insult Ebert targeted at the industry as first one , Biden/Obamas Insult to dare to make video game partly responsible for gun related violence as second one and David Cages “Peter Pan Diagnosis” as third one.

          All this “insults” can be used constructively to try to make “better” games. Games that show that Gamemakers are conscious of the social reality their products are effecting, aware of the ethic consequences if they submit to the dictate of markets with conman-like methods and prostitute their creative integrity. 

          The knee-jerk reaction of many gamers, gamemakers and self proclaimed industry-representatives that feel patronized by such statements doesn`t exactly show that we are willing to play by the grown-up`s rules.

          It`s a lucky break that the words “conscious” and “conscience” are so close in the english language, because as Moriarty in his talk so eloquently put it: Art can give us a means of “drug-free induced” - “enhanced” consciousness, a healthy way of becoming more aware, an aesthetic way to enrichen our lives. This society has an-aesthetic ways enough to narcotize the pains of our everyday-lives.


          How is Technology altering the production and reception of Artworks?

          While Benjamin and McLuhan are dealing with the first electronical wave of media mass production, we have to look at the differences that occurred when Technology not only overtook reproduction but also production of Artworks. The main improvement between analog and digital production can be coined as: lossless refineability/cloneablility. Where an analog production/reproduction to a more or lesser degree looses information during the process, and every decision in an analog work environment is mostly irreversible, the digital workflow allows for infinite versions, backups, patches, addons, mods etc. up until the very moment of publication and beyond. Digital Technology itself bridges the gaps of time and produces some Paradoxies like Copies that can be considered as better than the original.

          While other media profit from the benfits of digital technology the video game development process is absolutely relying on it. Anyone who starts to learn about games will soon realize that it vastly differs from shooting a movie, recording a song or writing a book. The complexity level it takes to create even the most simple games (PacMan, Tetris) is frightening in the beginning. As with any complex tasks video games struggle on a daily basis with softwarebugs, hardwarecrashes and driverincompatibilities. While other media could vastly build on the vocabularies (language, spatial perception) that are trained in every individual from the very start of his birth during a time were everyone`s brain is most plastic, video games that are dependent on mastering a programming language demand such abstract concepts from the human brain that it can be pushed to its limits.

          In “Outliers” (fancy way of saying Extraordinary Individuals) Malcolm Gladwell discusses a 10.000 Hour Theory that recently has been popularized by the  gamification Lobby. It takes 10000 hours of practicing any skill to reach the status of a master/virtuoso, the inofficial, unspoken requirement of every piece of High Art: its maker must have first mastered his craft to deserve the status of an artist. He is especially talking about such somewhat atomic skills that refer to individuals like: writing, drawing, singing, football playing etc.

          How does such a theory translate from Individuals to Groups? Can the group/hivemind/teameffort achieve something similarly impressive?

          In further hindsight we might find that eventually all Art that seems to be the product of one person is in fact the product of many interpersonal experiences, accumulated over generations. As no human is an island, no artist thrives in solitary confinement.  What Newton said (“If I have seen further it is by standing on the sholders[sic] of Giants”) coined at the progression of Sciences is equally valid for the systems of Arts.

          Newton and british 2-Pound coin





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